Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Academic literacy in another language

These past couple of weeks, along with some projects I am working on with colleagues, I am also trying to make some headway for my fall class, EDDE 805, which is the first of two doctoral seminars. From what I can see from the abbreviated syllabus (love that it's just posted on the web!) one of the assignments is an analysis of dissertations of people who are already doctors in our field.  The assignment is as follows:

Short presentations in two-weekly synchronous sessions facilitated by the instructor (schedule to be determined in week 1).

In each synchronous session between weeks 3 - 11, two students will present a review and respond to questions on these reviews of two outstanding dissertations relevant to their field of research, for 20 minutes each.

Reviews should include consideration of specific points of quality or lack thereof, the good/bad aspects, and what information, research processes, ideas, theoretical approaches or organizational structures could or couldn’t be used by presenters in their own projects. As a result of this review, each presenter should produce a list of distilled/deduced criteria for what constitutes a good quality thesis/dissertation. These criteria, together with a two page summary of their reviews should be posted to the Moodle site at least one (1) week before their scheduled presentation date to give other students time to read, reflect and prepare responses and/or questions.

In each of these sessions, other students will present a 5-10 minute oral review of an article they have read relevant to their project/area of research and present “work in progress” in their own research preparation, planning, implementation, analysis, writing etc. It is envisaged that the literature review and proposal assignments, as they are developed, will also form part of this presentation and discussion.

I spend some time a month or so ago going through the ProQuest dissertation abstracts, as well as the list of repositories that Debra H. sent us to prepare us for the course (thank you! :-) ) to find dissertations.  I found a dissertation of interest in English, and I was thinking of flexing my mind by reading a dissertation in another language.  My experience with reading dissertations† done by others is that there are dissertations that are just freakin' awesome, and others where you might wonder how that person earned a doctorate (given typos, logical argument flaws, and lots of weasel words - as George Siemens tells us to avoid).

In any case, I asked a colleague of mine, in Greece, who has been on viva voce (aka dissertation defense) examination committees if he happened to have a good dissertation, written in Greek, that he could recommend as an example of something that is well written, and kindly enough he shared something he considered as an excellent dissertation with me.  I was interested in something from Greece for three reasons:  (1) I wanted to compare a good dissertation from another country with what we generally accept to be good dissertations in North America. (2) I wanted to practice my academic Greek. (3) Even though my dissertation topic wont' be linguistics focused, I missed that topic these past few years working on MOOCs and Distance Education that I wanted to read a little about it.

(that was a long set-up, eh?)
So, I am sitting...and reading...and reading...and reading.  A dissertation written in English is something I would have finished by now, but this particular one, 2 weeks into the process, and I am only 1/3 of the way done (not including appendices and references in my page count).  While I am fluent in Greek, and it is one of my native languages, this register is not something I am as familiar with given that I completed most of my academic preparation (K-grad school) in an environment where English was the language of instruction. Some of the things that make my reading go slower are:

  1. Words used in the specific discipline: I am familiar with the English terms for something, but not the Greek ones, so when I come across the Greek term, I often stop, like a tourist, to see the sights (the English term is often given in parentheses when first used), so I take that moment to stop and smell the linguistic and disciplinary roses. 
  2. The sentence structure of an academic paper or dissertation is not usually the same as someone's blog post, or a news story.  It's not in English either (we're just used to those different registers and discourses) but it's a bit of a culture-shock for me.  It's a bit like 20 or so years ago when I returned to the US and I needed to re-learn English (in the sense that I needed to learn 'school English')

 As I am reading this dissertation, I am wondering what is considered an appropriate length for a literature review without feeling like you are just repeating what some other person wrote in their own literature review for a related dissertation.  The literature review in this one seems to be about 80 pages at 1.5 spacing (if you exclude references to the literature in what appears to be the discussion section further into the dissertation).  As much as I am enjoying reading through this, it seems like a little overkill to me. I wonder what others think (those of you who read dissertations and maybe have completed one of your own).

Another thing I am wondering is this (and this is for all of you bi- and multi-linguals out there): Chances are that your published work is probably in English.  I am wondering how much practice you have, academically speaking, in your discipline, with languages other than English.  How hard is it for you to cultivate this?  And do you see value in it?

I personally see value in cultivating my Greek (and hopefully later on my French) academic discourses, but I don't know how widely read my work is going to if I choose to write in a language other than English. So, while I see value in it, I am wondering if there is greater bang for the buck when it comes to just writing articles and book chapters in English (another type of Hegemony I guess).  Thoughts?

† In EDDE 802 we had pick some dissertations, read them, share them with our cohort and provide a brief review for them, so this isn't the first time I've looked for, and read, dissertations ;-) For 802 I tried to pick ones where I had more positive things to say rather than just lambast what I perceived to be poor ones :-)
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